The Kenston boys had no business winning their program’s first Division I region cross-country title during the 24-team race on Saturday at Boardman High School. Or at least that was the popular opinion beforehand.
The majority of pollsters in the Ohio Association of Track and Cross-Country Coaches predicted two-time defending state champion Hudson and 2016 state champion Solon as the favorites entering the meet.
But the state No. 6-ranked Bomber harriers weren’t clowning around when they posted 126 points from their front five runners to dethrone Hudson, 134 points, St. Ignatius, 178 points, Solon, 179 points, and the rest of the field. Hudson entered the meet ranked No. 2 in Ohio, only behind Cincinnati St. Xavier, while Solon was No. 4 and Ignatius was No. 11.
Kenston’s fifth runner, senior Casey Pleune, stopped the watch at 17:07.62 to finish 47th in the team race, while Hudson’s fifth runner, junior Kyle Betz, crossed the line at 17:10.92, to finish 55th. That was the different in the final standings – eight points.
Meanwhile, Kenston was led by junior Dennis Princic, who clocked a 16:32.18 on the 5-kilometer course to finish 13th among 197 runners and 12th in the team race to help the Bombers secure some hardware and a repeat state berth.
“It was something that we were trying to do, it was something that we know we could do, or maybe even should do,” Princic said about knocking off Hudson for the team trophy. “We just knew going in that we had a lot of competition, and we knew we had work to do, and we did the work.”
After Kenston finished 18th at the state meet last year and graduated its top two runners, no one expected the Bombers to be making this much noise in 2019, as made evident when they came out ranked 12th in the second weekly poll.
In particular, Princic wasn’t even on Kenston’s postseason lineup a year ago. He was running his first regional meet on Saturday, competing up front among some of the best runners in the state.
“I felt great. I felt strong. I felt like I was well-trained. I felt confident,” Princic said. “I was a little bit nervous in the beginning, because the first mile was so crowded and so tight, but I felt confident.”
But what did Princic do in the offseason go from a non-postseason runner in 2018 to the pack leader of a regional championship team in 2019?
“I honestly think about that all the time,” he said. “What am I doing in front of the pack now? But I’ve just done my work. I’ve done all the extra stuff outside of practice. I’ve done all the important stuff in practice.
“I’ve led the team. I’ve just trained a lot harder. I’ve trained a lot smarter. The little things I’ve often skipped freshman year and sophomore year, I started to pick up now. I’ve eaten a lot better, slept a lot better – just the small things, I guess.”
Senior David Rosinski, the Bombers’ top returner from a year ago, has been the most consistent No. 1 guy for Kenston throughout the season, but Princic has always been on his tail, before Princic clipped him by less than two seconds at regionals. Rosinski finished 13th in the team race in 16:34.10.
Kenston’s one-through-five pack was separated by 34.74 seconds on Saturday, which has become a normal spread for the season, but having two guys up top instead of one is what separates the Bombers from a lot of other elite programs in Ohio.
Sure, Hudson senior frontrunner Andrew Goldslager laid the hammer down in 16:22.66 to finish sixth in the team race, while the Explorers’ second runner finished 19th. So, Kenston’s Princic-Rosinski tandem had them locked dead even with the favorites through two runners.
“We definitely went in knowing there was a chance to win regionals,” Rosinski said. “But we definitely were going for the win and knew we were going to make it out. So, we put together a really good race and had a lot of guys step up to pass people in the finish. It was a good day.”
While Rosinski is one of four Bombers who have regional experience from a year ago, he had every right to be a little bit nervous entering the race on Saturday.
In 2018, Rosinski was fixing to have one of his best races of the season at Boardman, but, with 200 meters or so to go, he was at the point of total exhaustion and collapsed on the course. He ended up crawling to the finish line to clock an 18:30.51, before ending up in the hospital.
“I came around the final turn, and my body didn’t want to keep going,” he said. “I was able to finish the race, but the last 200 meters took me like two minutes. I didn’t really have any flashbacks, but, when I came around that finishing turn (on Saturday), I was thinking about it.
“So, it was a little bit of a redemption course for me, but Dennis (Princic) and I stuck together the whole time and were able to be smart through the first half, when it was all crammed, and just push through the second half and keep passing people.”
Also scoring for Kenston at regionals, junior Tyler McMahan finished 24th in the team race in 16:45.45, and junior Jack Turk was 30th in 16:55.16 as the Bombers’ three and four runners, while juniors Nathan Bertman, 17:18.88, and Garrett McConnell, 17:22.12, weren’t far behind as the second-fastest sixth runner and fastest seventh runner in the field.
In the Division I girls race, meanwhile, Kenston junior Ellie Pleune punched her third straight ticket to states by finished 15th in 19:25.18, shedding 54.16 seconds off her regional run from a year ago, while the Lady Bombers finished 10th as a team with 296 points to miss out on states by 35 points.
“I felt really good,” Pleune said. “The course was faster than last year, and I was hoping my team would be able to come with me, but, unfortunately, that didn’t happen. So, I’m a little bit bummed about that, but I’m excited to go back for the third year and represent them.”
The good news for Kenston is that its front six runners on Saturday are all returning next year.
“I think the young runners have pushed me a lot,” Pleune said about two freshmen and three sophomores in the varsity lineup. “My freshman year, I didn’t really have anybody to work with or train with, but this year, adding Cece (Paglia) and Paige (Masson) was really good, because they can run with me and push me to be better in workouts.”
The girls race at Boardman featured nine lady harriers breaking the 19-minute barrier, including Medina senior Juliette Keller, who won the race in 18:12.53.
Pleune was third in a pack of eight runners who were separated by 7.57 seconds, but she left nothing to chance by clinching her state berth by a comfortable 29.9 seconds.
“Typically, I’ll go out a little bit faster than I did,” Pleune said. “So, the race went out decently fast, but I knew, if I could just stick behind the main pack, I’d be in good shape, so that’s what I did. My only thought during the race was to pass more people so my team could make it.”
Pleune and the Kenston boys will return to state competition this Saturday at the National Trail Raceway in Hebron.